Executive Amplification

I ran across this term, Executive Amplification, recently in an article in the Wall Street Journal and latched on to it because it clearly identifies an impactful phenomenon for leaders. The impact can be positive, but unfortunately, it can also be incredibly negative. Executive Amplification refers to what occurs when you come into a senior leadership position. Your behavior begins to be scrutinized in ways you never imagined. The people around you are watching your dress, your behavior, what you joke about, what you laugh about. They hear your words of encouragement and your unintentional slights with greater amplification than you could ever imagine. I say “unintentional” because, so often, your intentions are not what are seen by those you lead or influence. As such, you can only rely on them so far and so long before you lose credibility because of your behavior.

Linda Parker Hudson of BAE Systems tells about a time shortly after her promotion to lead the U.S. division, when she told her direct reports of her intentions to increase responsiveness to e-mails. To her surprise her direct reports were sleeping by their blackberries to respond to the e-mails she would send in the middle of the night. Needless to say, she had to curb her behavior of sending late night e-mails to relieve their stress.

Don Soderquist, retired COO and Senior Vice Chairman of the Board for Walmart, and a friend whom I worked for for several years, tells of the time when he was first promoted to President of Ben Franklin Stores. In a meeting he made mention in passing how helpful it might be to have the data to demonstrate a specific aspect of the business. In no way had he given a directive to anyone. Nevertheless, to his complete surprise, he had a comprehensive report on his desk shortly after the meeting. Mentioning this to one of his colleagues, he was reminded that his words and gestures were now being viewed differently that ever before.

The worst aspect of this Executive Amplification is when it begins to have a negative impact on other great leaders. I witnessed one leader whose personal morals were questionable, but who had been able to get good results in the organization he served. When he took over as the senior executive of a particular division of the business, I watched in amazement at how quickly so many people who had previously demonstrated strong moral leadership in their personal lives and relationships set these high standards aside and got caught up in the immorality that was being demonstrated by this executive. Marriages were destroyed, families broken up, jobs were lost because leaders were having affairs with their subordinates, felonies were being committed and reputations were obliterated. Under the previous leadership in this organization, this kind of behavior may have been present, but it was minimal. I was struck by the impact that a single leader can have.

Not all Executive Amplification is a bad thing. It can actually be used for positive effects. As the previous example demonstrates, when the previous leader exhibited and demonstrated strong personal moral fiber, so did his subordinates. His behavior, reinforced by his speeches and actions, helped create a values-driven, family-friendly culture.

As senior leaders, the people in your organization are paying attention to your every move. They are determining what is important to you by watching what you do, who you hire, who you promote, who you demote or terminate, what gets your attention, what makes you laugh, what you say and whether your actions are consistent with your message. As one of my professors in graduate school made clear, You cannot not communicate. All of your behavior is communicating something all the time. You are always on. This is especially so for senior leaders and executives. It is critical that you are certain that the message that is being delivered is the message you are intending to communicate. Otherwise people are left to draw their own conclusions.

Too often, due to the lack of feedback or personal failure to be socially aware, leaders are blind to what they are actually communicating. That is where an Executive Coach can be helpful as they help you identify the blind spots and develop strategies for knowing what you are communicating, and for improving your leadership effectiveness.

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